Social media, faith, and the Ruwaybidhah

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Social media has proved to be a burgeoning phenomenon, the owners of Facebook are billionaires and its servers probably store more data on humanity than anywhere else. But the new virtual assembly social media facilitates does not produce a significant jama’ah (community) but a superficial and deceptive sense of community. Many assert it remains a way of staying ‘connected’ with other Muslims but it actually characterises disengagement between believers.

Of course social media can be beneficial: it is an efficient way to get things out there, keep people informed, and create small spaces for families and friends. Yet there are vital functions of the jama’ah that cannot operate online. Why not? Well for one, unlike social media a real community isn’t about having a laugh, positing bad arguments, or spreading alarm amongst an already anxious populace, but how we relate to other believers and what we do for one another. Social media has replaced mosques, centres and homes; we once gathered and discussed issues pertaining to Muslims in person but people now sit behind a device of some sort, detached from the etiquettes of a social gathering; the obscurity of an avatar induces remarkable levels of Dutch courage and many Muslims resort to making cheap and disparaging ‘one-liners’ knowing it would be intolerable face to face. In the current climate of little religion but frenzied rhetoric, and the advent of virtual platforms where a performance can be spread far and wide, it is no surprise that the ruwaybidhah feel emboldened.

It is reported from Abu Hurairah that the Prophet said: “There shall come upon people years of deceit in which the liar will be believed, the truthful one disbelieved, the treacherous will be trusted and the trustworthy one considered treacherous; and the ruwaybidhah will speak out.” It was asked: “Who are the ruwaybidhah?” The Prophet replied:

“A stupid (tafih) man who will speak out about public affairs.”

Ahmad et al

The term tafih denotes a buffoon, somebody irrelevant but looking for an exhibition; in another narration the term safiyah – foolish is used, one who has little knowledge. Tellingly, a third narration refers to such people as fuwaysiq – from fasiq (evil person) but in the diminutive form meant to belittle. The ruwaybidhah are fundamentally vocal and irate imbeciles (r-b-dh suggesting heat); their articulations nothing but simian snorts in the form of baseless or unreasoned opinions; their conduct juvenile and engagement unsophisticated. Whilst it is clear that they are vile, their insignificance (where the Prophet belittles them) means that engaging with them is simply a waste of time. Such ruwaybidhah, at least in the context of social media, often manifest as frenzied and narrow-minded trolls, or pseudo-religious personalities with no perceivable acumen or background knowledge. Their method of engagement shows what they are about, and in another hadith that similarly describes them, related by A’ishah from the Prophet:

The most evil of people are those whom others avoid due to their vileness (fuh’sh).

Now the trolls themselves will argue that they regularly post beneficial messages and points for reflection, yet they overlook the stench that has caused decent people to flee from them regardless the ‘good’ they exhibit. In fact, the Prophet said:

The best of people are those from whom good is desired and evil is circumvented, and the worst of people are those from whom neither is their good wanted, nor is one safe from their evil(fuh’sh).

The virtual world remains a favourable place for the ruwaybidhah of the second kind, it conceals deficits in knowledge and allows for the creation of false guises and personas. When questions are asked religious personalities are granted time to go off and make a hack job of a fatwa; the views of others are translated from unsourced articles, or a simple quote to offer an undeveloped opinion. The googling of scriptural evidences serves one purpose; to come across as knowledgeable in a way that would be nigh impossible were the persona present in the flesh. Simply googling evidences means that such people do not grasp the issue, nor have they spent time thinking, evaluating and developing their position on the matter. Rather than develop intelligent ideas on a topic based on the variables and sources, they decide their positions first and then skew the evidence to support it.

In the real world these resources are beyond direct (internet) reach and consequently such people would be exposed. Audiences expect answers to simple questions immediately, and often with the scriptural basis these personas are incapable of delivering off hand. Secondly, unlike those with scholastic insight they are incapable of carrying the discussion and presenting a layered analysis so as to consider the entire topic and offer a rounded understanding: in context, and in consideration of all variables.

Much of this stems from the desire to become a personality or to champion sectarian narratives built on lazy assumptions about Islamic law and theology. The effort taken to be well-informed proves far too arduous and cumbersome. But only until scriptural sources are cerebrally cemented and met with a systematic body of reasoning that integrates it with reality that a scholar can devote energies to connecting dots and making sense of contemporary situations. Given the depth of analysis proper learning produces, actual scholars prefer discussions in person and very rarely fully engage on social media, it is unsuitable for protracted conversations where a comprehensive explanation might run into thousands of words, which would usually only amount to a ten minute conversation. What meaningful and cultivating engagement can possibly be had on these forums when most people are unable to articulate themselves accurately, and habitually misread or misinterpret what they come across?

By consigning the way we acquire religious narratives entirely to social media, Muslims are fundamentally neglecting the opportunity to form long-lasting relationships and do meaningful things together. For many, social media is simply about talking. Communal organising tends to be about understanding and action. There is a sombreness and internalised reality in the physical jama’ah that the virtual world can never replace. Proper religious cultivation (tarbiyyah) cannot take place on the internet, no matter how many quirky posts on the fada’il of the Qur’an or the sentiments of the salaf (early Muslims) we submit. Muslim relates from Abu Hurairah that the Prophet said:

No people gather together in a house from the houses of God, to recite the Book of Allah and study it amongst themselves, except that tranquility descends upon them, mercy covers them, the angels surround them, and Allah makes mention of them to those in His divine presence.

It is this tranquility and mercy that creates the needed components to bring believers together; rather than a battle of egos such gatherings tend to incite meaningful engagement – getting to know others and their positions intimately. Through exploration it creates understanding and mutual bonds, leading to civility and genuine deliberation. In this we see the wisdom behind God’s call to physical engagement and togetherness, and why the devil calls to isolation which allows him unfettered access to corrupt human hearts. God says, ‘enjoin in goodness and God consciousness, but do not enjoin in sin and hostility.’ (Qur’an 5:3)

We need to partially disconnect from social media in order to re-connect with the essence of our faith and the type of social interaction it inspires; social media isn’t bringing out the best in us, in fact it’s quite the opposite.

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